Open the door. Embrace this movie miracle. Let it in.
“Let Me In” is onscreen type o negative. It’s a rare, delicate transfusion of European blood into an American movie production. It mixes torrents of stateside gore with the more refined, thoughtful plasma of European cinema. This approach seldom works. But in the respectful hands of director Matt Reeves, “Let Me In” combines two often-clashing flavors in ways that taste great together.
“Let Me In” is currently in wide release, spraying crimson onto multiplex screens across the nation. But Reeves’ chilling film is actually someone else’s undead, resurrected baby. With his 1984 novel “Let the Right One In” (“Låt den rätte komma in”), Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist initially conceived the film’s melancholy, coming-of-age romance between a bullied boy and his connection-starved vampire muse.
Inevitably, the Swedish film industry came calling. Lindqvist donated several pints from the book’s fertile blood bank to director Tomas Alfredson, whose previous resume consisted primarily of stage productions. Alfredson, who would later admit to “not being a horror fan,” seemed ill equipped to transfer Lindqvist’s dark vision from page to screen. But strange bedfellows often create fresh and potent synergies. Like a stealth grim reaper, “Let the Right One In” quietly slipped into theaters in 2008 to stun, terrify, and touch art-house audiences and critics alike.
It also exposed the shrill, stupid “Twilight,” released the same year, as a saccharine fraud.
Alfredson’s film follows Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a fragile twelve-year old towhead enduring relentless bullying from some particularly nasty schoolyard peers. Oskar exists unseen and unwanted, residing in a depressing apartment also inhabited by his disengaged mother. Behind bedroom walls, this seemingly benign boy vents his anger at being unjustly victimized. Wielding a gleaming pocketknife, Oskar jabs at make-believe assailants, taunting these nonexistent foes with Travis Bickle-styled rants.
“You talking to me, piggy?”
Oskar spends lonely evenings in a snow-covered playground, fidgeting with a Rubik’s Cube amidst jungle gym and teeter-totter. One evening, another lonely soul enters his outdoor sanctuary. Eli (Lina Leandersson) is a raven-haired, shoeless girl recently moved into Oskar’s apartment complex. Why don’t her feet get cold, and why does she smell funny? Eli is an odd duck, but she’s pretty and bold, filling a void in Oskar’s more tentative demeanor. Opposites attract. Soon, Eli grants Oskar his wish to “go steady.”
But surrounding their tentative romance is a series of ghoulish murders. Adolescent boys are tied at the ankles, hung upside down, and drained of their blood. Grown men are assaulted in alleyways, throats ripped out and bodies frozen solid. More dead bodies are fished out of nearby lakes.
Is Eli, or the timid older man sharing her apartment, behind these ghastly crimes?
“Let the Right One In” is magic in its tone, imagery, and subtle attention to human yearning. It’s both a delicate fairy tale, and a dive into horror depravity. It’s a vampire film, all right, but one that jettisons the genre’s familiar conventions. No garlic. No stakes. No clichés.
Alright, then. If “Let the Right One In” is a perfect ten, why the remake?
Most American retreads disrespectfully toss all subtlety to the wind, making a grab for the brand name but none of the details that made the original unique. But Reeves, whose underrated “Cloverfield” spun an overdone “Godzilla” premise into harrowing new directions, seems hell-bent on protecting all that’s sacred about Alfredson’s vision.
My favorite scene from “Let the Right One In” brings Oskar and Eli together for the first time. Standing beneath a pitch-black night sky in his icy playground comfort zone, Oskar senses a presence. The boy’s keen intuition tells him to turn around. As Oskar’s head, neck, and trunk swivel left, Alfredson’s camera follows in a smooth, unbroken tracking shot. Both protagonist and viewer share in an eerie first-time image of the pale, barefoot Eli standing silently atop a jungle gym.
This slight shifting of the camera, from Oskar to Eli, has become one of horror’s most iconic moments. Your typical Hollywood hack would miss it. But Reeves clearly understands the power of this seemingly minor ninety-degree turn. He nails it. Again. One could argue that he’s stolen the shot….but if you’re gonna steal, why not take from the best? Likewise, why fix what’s not broken?
Another “Right One…” detail reveals the “hows” and “whys” behind a noxious bully’s sociopathic behavior. Late in the film, we watch his interactions with an even more dangerous older brother. S**t rolls downhill. Tainted fraternal influence, it would seem, has taken its toll. The importance of this short, discreet scene isn’t lost on Reeves, who wisely carries it over into his rendition.
Speaking of bullying, both films feel in their bones the awful horror of school stalking. Kids are cruel. And like the transference of evil from brother to brother, victims of abuse can – and oftentimes will – express their rage through tragic acts. During a conversation with Alfredson in 2008, the director told me, ““I have been in a similar situation when I was younger. When children are being bullied this way, I don’t think they get sad and sentimental over it. They grow a lot of anger.”
Reeves also remains true to the key ingredient from Alfredson’s film: a sense of quiet. I once asked the director if there were cultural difference that made “Let the Right One In” feel so unique. “Maybe it’s (an example of) our way to communicate through silence,” he suggested. “That silence is also a way of speaking. Not answering a question can actually be a way of answering a question.”
This philosophy is carried into “Let Me In.” Words are allowed to suspend themselves and resonate. The grating jabber of most American movies is filtered out. When a key character proclaims, in tired resignation, “I’m nothing,” it carries weight. In both films, words are actually worth something.
Reeves also beefs up the role of Eli’s paternal adult caregiver, a weary hunter assigned the unenviable task of bleeding out corpses and harvesting blood. In the original film, Alfredson presents this mysterious manservant (played by Per Ragnar) as a grizzled, standoffish depressive who bleeds victims with the passive drudgery of a mechanic changing oil.
“Let Me In” provides considerably more dimension, courtesy of the superbly subtle Richard Jenkins. Unequaled for depicting repressed everymen, Jenkins plays Eli’s resigned slave as an angry, tired soul who loves his master, while simultaneously resenting a lifetime of murderous servitude. “Maybe I’m getting sloppy,” he confesses to Eli after a botched blood search. “Maybe I want to get caught.”
And when he’s on the prowl, hiding his stubbly, pockmarked face and cracked glasses with a wrinkled black trash bag, Jenkins is truly terrifying. Brandishing a duffel bag bulging with funnel, ether, razors, and acid, he’s a seasoned veteran of murder. We know he must hunt. We know he will kill. We feel the dark ache of a man who has wasted and tainted his life through repeated acts of evil.
Okay. Let’s review our notes. “Let Me In” succeeds by respecting the original film’s crucial details, and by fleshing out supporting characters. But it also adds some spices of its own. An undercover cop (Elias Koteas) adds flair and shape to the narrative. We begin our filmic journey alongside this lawman, inside a swerving, careening ambulance. From this gripping opening scene, Koteas becomes the consistent thread that holds “Let Me In” together. In a pivotal final scene, he also symbolizes the voluntary loss of innocence – and a resignation to the tempting pull of evil.
Meanwhile, Reeves slices a few pieces of unwanted fat from the original film’s script. A clumsy cat-attack scene, in which low-budget CGI doesn’t quite make the jump from silly to scary, is jettisoned. Random, pub-inhabiting townies from the first film are re-invented as tenants from a single apartment complex. The whole narrative is more sleek and streamlined.
Alright, then. Details and supporting players aside, do the two leads do justice to their predecessors?
“Let the Right One In” hit casting pay dirt with Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson. Their physical contrast is striking: Hedebrant is light personified, all pallid skin and straw-colored hair. A physical runt with the drowsy demeanor of a boy sleepwalking through life, Hedebrant plays Oskar as vulnerability incarnate. Meanwhile, Leandersson is the dark flipside. Her eyes are gray, her hair jet-black. Eli reflects a complex mix of strength and sadness. She’s both aggressive and melancholy, the dynamic battery to illuminate Oskar’s flat affect. There’s irony here: Eli might be an supernatural being who lives through death, but she’s infinitely more alive than Oskar’s meek mortal.
In “Let Me In,” the scene is switched from Sweden to Regan-era New Mexico. Oskar and Eli become Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Abby (Chloe Moretz). Frankly, this film’s leads are better actors. But is this necessarily a good thing? Hedebrant and Leandersson created a natural, unforced chemistry that didn’t come across as acting. The two new leads deliver lines in a more scripted, obvious manner. That’s not to say that this is a bad thing. It’s comparing apples to oranges…or different blood types.
As Owen, Kodi Smit-McPhee creates a more complex character than his predecessor. Owen is a creature of the senses. He nurtures sight as a peeping tom, aiming his bedroom telescope at the windows of unsuspecting neighbors. His sense of sound comes in handy for listening through walls and hearing the strange noises emanating from Abby’s next-door apartment. Taste is satiated through Now and Later candy chunks. And during his first encounter with the malnourished, blood-craving Abby, he tells her, “You smell funny.”
Owen’s senses might be keenly developed, but he’s lonely and love-starved. Reeves accentuates this by reducing Owen’s parents to unseen human husks. His mother’s face is never fully visible. His father’s only interactions with Owen are icy, critical telephone calls. In “Let Me In,” the protagonist is more tormented. While Oskar seemed insulated within in some protective, inexpressive cocoon, Owen is putting himself out there, taking a chance, trying to connect. But he’s being rejected and abused at every corner. It’s tragic.
Meanwhile, can Moretz effectively sink her fangs into the complex role of Abby, a vampiric Jekyll and Hyde who’s both savior and slave-maker? Absolutely. Her tentative relationship with Owen carries all of the potent emotion that made the original touching. When Owen offers Abby one of his cherished Now and Later candies, Abby accepts it – knowing all along that vampire G.I. tracts aren’t compatible with sweets. It’s a gesture of how badly she wants to connect with this potential soul mate.
But is Abby really a soul mate – or soul stealer?
When Moretz satiates her need for teeth-in-neck nourishment, the attacks are sudden, sloppy, and brutal. Reeves milks a trick from Stanley Kubrick, framing Abby’s post-murder expressions with an intensity that will make your flesh crawl. Think back to Kubrick killers like “Full Metal Jacket’s” Gomer Pyle, or “The Shining’s” Jack Torrance – downward eyes slowly rising in expressions of ecstatic evil. Moretz adds to this shrine of effectively satanic faces.
In the end, both films ask two disturbing questions with the same levels of skill, intensity, and imagination. Given the choice between the embrace of supernatural evil and the cruel rejection of humanity, which would you make? Meanwhile, as Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor once wrote, can one find happiness in slavery?
Abby and Owen might be dancing with the Devil. But film fans can rejoice in this heaven-sent miracle: an American remake that lives up to its foreign predecessor. Open the door, and savor its black magic spell.